Philip North is amazed at the number of people Jesus is calling to plant churches, as long as they are in areas where there is an upwardly mobile population.
A few weeks ago I confirmed an 11-year-old boy called Martyn along with both of his parents. I first met him at a holiday club in an estates parish in the south of Blackburn, a club set up to feed children in the school holidays. He and his sisters had been coming to the holiday club since it started. Things were really tough at home, the family were leading chaotic lives, the children would eat only jam sandwiches. But over time the parish has seen them grow in confidence and broaden their horizons. Through contact with local Christians the family have settled down, they have found a much more structured way of life, and through the loving service they have received they have come to faith.
Freedom Church, a new church plant on the Mereside estate in Blackpool, set up a stall in the local car-boot sale as a way of bringing a faith encounter to people who would normally never darken the door of a church. On the second week of running it a lady called Sharon came into the tent, promptly burst into tears and cried for about 10 minutes solid. Linda, the priest at that church let her cry and just sat beside her gently offering comfort. Sharon eventually told Linda that her mum had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and she was devastated. They talked for a long time and she asked what church Linda was from. Linda told her, and that they were meeting for a service that afternoon; she turned up with her son and husband, and they have barely missed a Sunday since (this was nearly a year ago). Freedom Church showed her God’s love, and welcomed the whole family into the church family. Sharon says that knowing God loves her has got her through what would have been a terrible time when her mother died. She is growing in faith, and is a very active participant in a weekly bible study group. Last month the whole family were baptized in a special service. Life has not been perfect or easy for Sharon since she has joined church; it didn’t fix all her problems or make her pain go away – but it helped her to realize and believe that God is with her through all the ups and downs of life.
David came into contact with his local church on a Blackburn estate through the Cubs. He is on the autistic spectrum and was really hard work for a very long time. The priest also gave a lot of support to his mum through various crises at home. David used to come to church armed with terrible jokes which he went round telling everyone who would listen. He became a server and gradually gained considerable social skills. He is now 19 and a member of the PCC. He is also involved with the diocese in various ways; at the moment the parish is helping him to raise money to go to our Link Diocese of Bloemfontein next year. He’s now at university and training to be a teacher. The impact of the church on David’s life has been transformative – a group of people who could accept and love him as he was, a place to grow through painful teenage years into the lovely and faithful young man he has now become.
I could tell plenty of stories like these, stories where people from hard backgrounds living in the toughest parts of the country have come to faith in Jesus Christ through passionate and committed Christian ministry which has combined service and proclamation. What worries me though, and what I want to focus on in this talk, are the stories I cannot tell. You see, in the inner urban areas and outer estates of our nation there are countless people like Martyn, Sharon and David whose lives are in a mess, who need the saving news of Jesus Christ but who will never hear it. And why not? Because there is no Christian community to proclaim it, or because that community is so weak that it has given up. ‘How shall they hear without a preacher?’ St Paul asks in Rom.10. The simple and hard truth is that, in the poorest parts of the country, we are withdrawing the preachers. The harvest is rich, but the labourers have been re-deployed to wealthier areas. We are seeing the slow and steady withdrawal of church life from those communities where the poorest people in our nation live.
And that matters. For the past 25 years I have been delighted to see a vast and ever growing industry of evangelism that now sets the pace in the Church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury is passionate about evangelism and has made it one of his major priorities, backed up with initiatives such as ‘Thy Kingdom Come.’ Almost all dioceses have strong growth strategies in place. The Church Commissioners have released £100m in assets to invest in mission initiatives. Planting new congregations has become an industry in itself, even having its own Bishop and backed up by the work of New Wine, Holy Trinity Brompton, Fresh Expressions, Messy Church and many others. We have had over two decades of evangelical ascendency and the majority of senior leaders will now emphasize mission and evangelism above anything else. New evangelistic resources appear on the scene all the time, countless new para-church groups and agencies appear with fresh ideas or new materials. We massively emphasize discipleship to try equip existing Christians to share faith more successfully. I could go on and on. This is a vast and ever-growing industry.
And what has been the impact? Accelerated decline. In 2001, according to census data, 71% of the UK population identified themselves as Christian. In just ten years, that figure had dropped to 59%. And the trend continues. The 2016 British Social Attitudes Survey found that 48.5% of the population said they were ‘nones’ (i.e. that they have no religion), outnumbering Christians, who were just 43.8%. Between 1980 and 2015, the percentage of the population attending church declined from 11.8% of the population to 5.0%. In the Church of England attendance decline increases steadily each year and averages around 2% to 3% per annum.
We are all trying really hard to renew the Church. We are working like crazy, we are praying like mad, we are trying every new idea under the sun. Yet the longed-for renewal does not seem to come. In fact decline just seems to speed up. Why? Why are we struggling so much? I want to suggest that the answer is quite a straightforward one: it is because we have forgotten the poor.
Every effective renewal movement in the whole history of the Church has begun, not with the richest and most influential, but with the poor and the marginalized. ‘I have come to proclaim good news to the poor,’ Jesus said in the synagogue at Nazareth. How often have you seen those last three words ‘to the poor’ omitted or re-interpreted or spiritualized? But when Jesus said ‘poor’ he meant ‘poor,’ and he demonstrated that in the way he lived the rest of his life. In order to found a movement to transform the world, he called not the wealthy, the articulate or the powerful but a ragtag, chaotic bunch of third-rate fishermen, busted tax collectors and clapped-out rebels. He chose the poor and the weak and the powerless, he chose those who knew their utter dependency on God because they quite literally had nothing else to depend on, and with these keystone-cop disciples he blew apart the whole meaning of what it is to be human.
The first Christians were true to that example, as we read in Acts. What made them stand out was their care for the poorest and the dignity they gave even to slaves. They pooled resources so that one of the actions of the first gentile converts was to contribute to the needs of the saints in Jerusalem. It was a church of and for the poor.
It should not surprise us, therefore, that every lasting renewal movement has been true to that tradition. When the Roman soldiers came to arrest St Lawrence during the persecution of Diocletian in 304AD and demanded to see the riches of the Church, he took them out into the streets and showed them the poor and the crippled and the lame. ‘Here is our gold,’ he told them. A great line, but it got him cooked on a griddle. Church for the poor. When St Francis heard his call to rebuild the church which had fallen into corruption, he called into community the illiterate and the uneducated, he gave them clothes to wear and food to eat and urged them, through their simplicity, to model the way of Christ, and they began a potent movement of reform that left monarchs quaking and powerless. Church for the poor. When Vincent de Paul wanted to renew a wholly decadent and derelict French church in the seventeenth century, he bypassed his aristocratic connections and went instead to the galley slaves and the prisoners and the destitute and unchurched citizens of the new cities. He organised communities of priests and sisters to serve and proclaim, and the result was a renewal which swept across France and overseas, and was one of the great inspirations behind the Catholic renewal in this country in the nineteenth century. Church for the poor. When Newman and his companions, tired of pluralism, of sloppy worship and of a decaying parish structure, wanted to address corruption and laziness in the Church of England in the 1830s, they began in the libraries of the Oxford colleges. However, within just a few years, their adherents had left their books behind and instead were out on the streets, caring for orphans and cholera victims, vying for each other over who could be appointed to the poorest parishes, using their first-class minds to preach to the tenement dwellers. Church for the poor. Or again, Wesley, angry with the complacency of an established church which had lost its passion for Christ, went to the margins, to the forgotten rural areas and those urban areas which were outside existing parish structures, using his horse and his feet to go to the unchurched and preach. Church for the poor. Or look in our own day. The Church in Western Europe might be in decline, but as Christians we are part of a vast, global movement expanding more quickly than ever before. And where is that growth? Africa. China. South America. It’s amongst the poor.
The lesson of scripture, the lesson of the past is clear. If we want renewal, we must start with the poor. And yet in the Church of England we have a mission approach that is almost entirely focussed on the needs and aspirations of the wealthy. Rather than speaking good news to the poor, we are complicit in the abandonment of the poor.
Now that is a very strong claim to make. So let me give you the evidence that lies behind it. To do so I am going to focus on the urban estates, the large areas of social housing that fringe many of our large towns and cities. First, the statistics. Church attendance. The proportion of people who attend an Anglican church in England is 1.7%. On the estates that figure is less than half at 0.8%. Moreover the rate of decline on the estates is almost four times faster than the rest of the country. Now given those chilling figures and the fact that Jesus came to proclaim good news to the poor, you might think that the Church of England would invest in these areas and deliberately divert resources from rich to poor. So what is the truth?
Nationally we spend £8 per head of population on ministry. In some rural areas that figure rises to £24 per head. On the estates we spend just £5 per head, by far the lowest. The poorer you are, the less the church values you.
Second, leadership. When my old parish in Hartlepool, a thriving estates church, was vacant a few years ago, it was over two years before the Bishop could appoint. Clergy didn’t want to live in that kind of area, they didn’t want their children educated alongside the poor – you will know the litany of excuses. At the same time a parish in Paddington was advertised and at once attracted 122 expressions of interest. That is the true measure of the spiritual health of the Church of England. It is incredibly hard to attract leaders of calibre to estates churches. And whilst many of those who do that work are heroic, we have to be honest and accept that some really struggle because their reason for being there is that it is the only job they could get. God doesn’t seem to be calling our best leaders to serve the poor. Or maybe he is calling, and we are not listening.
Third, access to ministry in times of need. In 2011 the Synod of the Church of England passed a new table of fees that massively increased the cost of funerals and weddings. Normally if you want to work Synod up to a frenzy you give a rousing speech about a bias to the poor. They love to listen to that sort of thing, but they don’t like to pay for it. That fee increase was nodded through with just two votes against. Without any real fuss at all, we calmly priced the poor out of the ministry of the church.
Fourth, infrastructure. Take my own diocese as an example. Over the past ten years in the Diocese of Blackburn, we have closed churches in Grange Park and Mereside in Blackpool, reduced staffing levels in Ribbleton and Stoups and seen churches in Skerton and Over Darwen grow ever weaker. Fortunately we are finding ways to re-invest in these areas and the new plant in Mereside is going fantastically. But the national picture is one of slow withdrawal. It is not a deliberate strategy, but as a result of countless reluctant decisions we are losing the estates churches. They are being closed or merged or having their priests withdrawn. And once you get into the building the problems become even more apparent. If you go to a suburban church you will usually find a comfortable and well maintained building with carpets, heating, clean toilets and good music. Estates churches rarely have the money to maintain themselves properly. If you are poor all you are worth is a cold and half- derelict building.
Fifth, church-planting which is a major plank of renewal and reform. The towns chalked down for plants are very clearly identified. They are student towns with a young and upwardly mobile population. Or they are in parts of London where the deprivation statistics are high but where gentrification is bringing fast change. There are one or two honourable exceptions, for example, St Peter’s Brighton, who have planted on to the Whitehawk estate. But for the most part church planting is white middle-class graduate church for white middle-class graduates.
And the sad truth is that the wider church often doesn’t seem to care too much about all this. Wealthier parishes grumble incessantly about having to ‘subsidize’ the church in poorer places. Estates churches and their leaders are all too often forgotten or blamed for the failings of their parishes. Many feel isolated or forgotten or misunderstood or undervalued.
The Church loves to rail against social inequality. And yet we model exactly the social inequality we so often condemn. The Church of England loves to boast about being a Christian presence in every community. And yet in those communities that most need to hear the message of hope we find in Jesus, that presence is ever weaker or non-existent.
This matters. It matters massively, and it matters because there are people out there who desperately need to hear Good News. Friends, we have a gospel of hope, a gospel that proclaims that, through the transforming power of the cross, there is no darkness that is not dispelled by the light of Christ, no pain that is left unhealed by his touch, no sin that is unforgiven by his grace, no injustice that is not addressed though his power. And the place where that message of hope is most needed is precisely the place where it is hardest to proclaim it: that is, amongst the poor.
As I speak, Grenfell Tower stands as a charred and ruined symbol of the desperate inequality that blights so many lives. It was destroyed by its façade, a façade constructed so that the wealthy residents of north Kensington would not have to face the reality that they were living adjacent to the social housing of their cleaners and carers and waiters and taxi drivers. The 80 or more people who were manslaughtered in that building died for one reason and for one reason only which is that they were poor. They are victims of years of rapacious under-investment, of corporate greed, of inept and corrupt local government, of a materialist culture that values human life only in so far that it is economically expedient to do so.
I really pray that the terrible fire at Grenfell might be a wake-up call, showing the nation the desperate lives that so many people are living today. The Brexit vote and other recent elections have shown up a real anger amongst the poorest in our nation, and it is an anger that we need to listen to rather than explain away.
The causes of that anger are easy and plain to see. Take the Somers Town estate in my old Parish in London. The residents there are surrounded by multi-billion pound infrastructure projects at Kings Cross and St Pancras, and yet their own housing is woefully inadequate and suffering from years of under-investment. Their jobs are increasingly ill-paid and tedious, with many relying on zero hours contracts or the gig economy. A friend told me recently about a woman in her parish whose husband had three jobs and yet the family were still dependent on the shameful indignity of the foodbank. ‘It’s not fair, is it?’ she complained. And she is right. It’s not fair. And she should be angry rather than sad. Residents of Somers Town are seeing accelerated changes to the make-up of their communities imposed upon them by people who live miles away, and when they complain they are accused of racism or xenophobia. They are seeing a loss of local leadership, as roles and responsibilities once undertaken by people within communities are professionalized and taken away from them. They feel abandoned by those organisations and institutions that were created to represent them – the Labour Party, trades unions, the building societies, local government. Owen Jones’s powerful book, ‘Chavs,’ plots how perceptions of estates residents have changed in recent decades so that those once hailed as hardworking heroes are now mocked and demonized.
Areas characterised by social deprivation desperately need a gospel of hope. And yet what are we doing? We are withdrawing. We are under-investing. What kind of church is it that turns its back on the dispossessed, or offers them only crumbs from the table of the rich? Unless we start with the poor, the gospel we proclaim is a sham, an empty hypocrisy.
Now of course there will be those who say, come on Philip, get real. The church is running out of cash. That means some churches are bound to close, and the churches on our outer estates are unviable, they are a luxury that we can’t afford. That is what plenty of very sensible accountants and church bureaucrats would tell us. And indeed a church that abandons the poor might well be financially viable. It is just that it would no longer be the Church of Jesus Christ. If we abandon the poor, we abandon God. If we fail to proclaim the good news to the poor, we lose the right and the authority to proclaim the good news to anyone, anywhere.
I remember once when I was running an estates church in London I was rung up by a member of the diocesan finance team who said, in passing, ‘Well, of course, you are a subsidized parish, aren’t you?’ And I realised that, for the previous 20 years of my ministry, that is how I had thought of myself: a subsidized priest, only able to minister because of the largesse and generosity of the wider church. But who is subsidizing whom? Yes, arguably, there may be a small financial subsidy from rich to poor. But the spiritual subsidy flows the other way. It is the rich church that is subsidized by the poor church, because unless it is proclaiming good news to the poor, the church is not the church at all.
Moreover, as all those renewal movements I named earlier show us, once we put the poor first it is the whole church that benefits. Because it is a hard environment to proclaim, the estates constitute an excellent testing ground for new ideas, leaders and resources. A church leader who can grow a church on an outer estate can grow a church anywhere. An evangelistic or discipleship resource that works in areas of poverty will work anywhere. A Gospel proclamation that answers the questions of the poorest will transform lives anywhere. If we start with the poor, we will find renewal.
In order to turn the world upside down we need to turn the church upside down. So what do we need to do?
The Rt Revd Philip North CMP is Bishop of Burnley. This article forms part of his address to the New Wine ‘United’ Conference 2017
In next month’s issue of ND he will suggest seven steps that will help us to become a church of and for the poor